The Difference Between Having Anxiety & A Disorder

by Gina M. Florio

Pretty much everyone and their mother these days wrestles with anxiety, the more reserved cousin of stress. At least 45 million Americans have reported that they suffer from an anxiety disorder, which can be broken down into seven different categories, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and social phobia. These specific conditions are diagnosed by a medical professional and treated accordingly, and they are usually long-term disorders that need constant attention.

But just because you feel stressed or emotionally overwhelmed doesn't automatically mean you have an anxiety disorder, either. Anxiety is your body's natural alarm bell to impending danger, and, in moderation, it's not a bad thing. It can actually give you spidey senses by helping you stay more alert and respond sharply to the situation around you. There are a lot of physical and psychological signs that point to anxiety, and they're generally triggered by a specific occurrence in your day-to-day life. When these symptoms start to interfere with the important stuff, however, is the moment you should consider whether you have a chronic issue.

Here are seven signs that you are anxious, but don't necessarily suffer from an anxiety disorder.

1. You Bite Your Nails

It's a nasty habit, as Julie Andrews informed innocent Anne Hathaway in the Princess Diaries; but it's also quite common, especially in young children, and sometimes we just don't grow out of it. If you find yourself in an occasional meeting with the head honcho at work and you weirdly find yourself chewing at your index finger as if it's a cake pop, you probably just fall into the category of average American who is slightly stressed.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: If you're one of those gals who can't be seen without a finger in her mouth and your nails are gnarly and bloody, you should seriously the level of overall anxiety you're harboring in your life. The second it reaches compulsion is the moment you should phone your doctor.

2. Your Heart Races Sometimes

Your heart rate will naturally rise when there is a threat present, no matter how small it may seem, and your body is thrown into fight-or-flight mode. All the physical systems are pretty good at telling you when something is off, so don't silence them. Experts list abnormal heart rate as the very first sign that you are anxious. Do you intermittently feel it beating in your chest before a significant event, such as a job interview or a hot date? OK, pretty standard. Take deep breaths and sit down for a few minutes with a tall glass of water in your hand.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: You lie in bed at night, when you should otherwise be relaxed, and notice your heart savagely fluttering for no apparent reason. Also, when the beating chest is accompanied by shortness of breath and the feeling like the whole room is closing in on you, you might be having a proper panic attack, which deserves medical attention.

3. Your Mind Races Sometimes

We're programmed to be chronic worriers, so it's not a big enough of a concern for doctors to prescribe you anti-anxiety medication if you waltz in with this complaint. The key with a busy mind is to not fight it, because the second you resist what your brain naturally wants to address, you cause it to panic. First, acknowledge the thought and understand what it is; then, look into its origins a bit deeper and write it down so you can mull over it; finally, respond and act on it after you've given it enough thought.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: Keep an eye out for obsessive thoughts, particularly if they make you feel overwhelmingly scared. They might be accompanied by sweating and trouble sleeping as well. If that's the case, you might be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and/or clinical depression.

4. You're Fidgeting

Usually, fidgeting is a displacement behavior, meaning it's just an expression that takes the place of an emotion or feeling you can't quite process at the moment. It's even done as a way to comfort ourselves when we're in an awkward situation. It doesn't necessarily point to a chronic issue, so just be aware of when you're tapping your pencil against the desk and ask yourself why. Your bodily systems are probably just overstimulated and need a little break.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: Big difference here between fidgeting and involuntary tremors. Sometimes it's described as full-body vibrations, scheduled to show up at the strangest times, including when you first wake up. Wrestling with uncontrollable shakes in the hands, arms, sides, or chest is a telltale sign you need to reach out to someone you trust.

5. You Get Scared

Fear is the core of stress, and it's perfectly normal for it to creep in every now and then. The hormones and neurotransmitter levels in the brain get shifted around when you become anxious, and this sparks panic. It's especially common for you to feel this way when you are thinking about what the future holds. Anxiety and fear get themselves into a dangerous cycle, though. You're stressed, so you get scared; then, the fear only generates more anxiety. You end up running mentally in circles until you feel crazy. Do your best to give yourself a break somewhere in between.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: It matters how long you've been struggling with this kind of fear; a lot of times, GAD is diagnosed to folks who have been dealing with it since their teenage years and it's steadily gotten worse. Another symptom of something more chronic is whether you constantly feel terrified of how other people are judging you.

6. You Sweat At Weird Moments

Nervous sweating is totally normal, and it happens to the best of us; at a party where we don't know anyone, or during a date that's going surprisingly well. It's a surefire sign of anxiety, but not the kind that should cause you distress. Sweating is the body's way of kicking itself into the fight-or-flight mode, helping you cope with whatever stress surrounds you. You can't control or stop this phenomenon once it starts, but what you can do is take deep, slow breaths, which will help bring the heart rate down.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: Is your sweating profuse and excessive? Talk to your doc about it. People with anxiety disorders often deal with both hot and cold sweats, so it could be a sign of something bigger. When it happens all over the body, too, it's a signal that serious stuff is happening.

7. You Have An Upset Stomach

There are some basic neuroendocrine changes that take place in the body when we're feeling emotionally stressed, and one of the first spots the pain manifests is in the digestive system. Dr. Tracy Dennis, associate professor of psychiatry at Hunter College, tells WebMD that these kinds of physical responses to anxiety can start and stop quite suddenly — and they can be rough. You could feel nauseous or constipated; you might even just have uncomfortable indigestion. It's a result of the emotions getting kicked into overdrive, which causes gastrointestinal distress.

How You Know It Might Be A Problem: If these symptoms persist over a long period of time, you should chat with your doc. The consistent anxiety could potentially lead to something more dangerous and chronic, like colitis or Crohn's disease. Also, if you find yourself doubled over with pain in response to a stressful situation, don't try to convince yourself that's normal.

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